By S.E. Fleenor

A couple of months ago, I started volunteering at Lighthouse’s Hard Times Writing Workshop, held every Monday at the Denver Public Library. Hard Times is a writing group for people experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty, though the door is open to anyone who has experienced challenges.  The goal is to help participants explore writing and self-expression, and their voices are then elevated through publication in the Denver Voice and Write Denver installations.

But Hard Times isn’t just a writing group. It’s a safe haven in a cold and oftentimes hate-filled world. The people who sit around these tables frequently share little more than this group, little more than a desperate need to write together. We all show up, week after week, month after month, to write and create, but also to listen, to support, to come home.

I started coming to Hard Times because I wanted to help people write. I came as an outsider, intending to stay on the outside. Little did I know, Hard Times does not have outsiders. If you’re in the room, you’re in the work. Before I knew it, I’d become a cheerleader, a friend, a sympathetic ear, a resource, a sibling. Without design, these people have become my writing family. Not because they let me show up twice a month to help them, not because they give me feedback on my own writing, but because they bare their souls before me, an offering of which I am unworthy.

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Our hard times vary. One member speaks of needing a better place to sleep, another of the social anxiety of big groups, yet another of the loneliness of a new city. Many of our members have had backs turned on them by family, by friends, by society. We should have a big neon sign that announces, “Pariahs welcome here.” Because we are. We all are.

“I hate writing,” a Hard Times member professes while introducing herself. We laugh. Oh, how we all know that feeling. To hate your own words, to hate creating, to hate sharing your work aloud, to hate every damn part of the process.

Twenty minutes later, the same woman who hates writing reads me a piece she wrote last week. It’s written in stream of consciousness, and that’s what takes us to the hard times: the letters unsent, the loss of her mother, the inexplicable hatred of writing words. As she reads, she begins to cry, and I cry with her. Why not? We cry at Hard Times, too. “It’s what I need to write,” she blurts out, as if a confession.

As we discuss her piece, I share the loss of my father, which led to the loss of my own voice for years. She shares, voice shaking, that she didn’t know how much her loss had held her back. We talk about how grief keeps us from writing and how writing is sometimes the only thing that helps with grief. She gives me a giant hug and tells me I did good. Even I get affirmations here.

I don’t want to tell you too much. I don’t want to break the secret recipe down to its composite parts for fear of ruining the magical soup we consume weekly. This group is great because of the people who come together. This group is great for each member’s fearlessness. This group is great because it is.

Come down and join us some time. Pariahs welcome here. (Hard Times meets every Tuesday from 3:00 to 5:00 PM at the Denver Public Library Central branch in the Burnham Hoyt Book Club Room.)

This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!


S.E. Fleenor writes novels and non-fiction essays, but dabbles in just about any genre, having published or performed original short stories, poems, plays, and screenplays. Her work centers on feminism, pop culture, books, class, gardening, and social justice, and has appeared in several publications, including The Greater Park Hill Newspaper, Class Lives: Stories from Across the Economic Divide, In the Biblical Sense: An Anthology of Apocryphal Poetry, and The Wick. Outside of writing, Fleenor is a nonprofit consultant and copywriter. For a good time, check out her website: sefleenor.com